Everything But The Squeal
In search of the mystery meat that is scrapple, a former vegetarian experiences an epicurean epiphany. Herein, a tale of food fights, corporate takeovers and good ol' family values.
The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossomtime, feeding it through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold arrives, is a familiar scheme to me and follows an antique pattern. It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned.
—From "Death of a Pig," by E.B. White
On a cool, overcast morning, I pulled into the circular driveway that flanks Ray Quillen's two-story wood-frame home. The smell of breakfast sausage told me I was in the right place. I rolled my truck to a stop next to a couple of men in blue coveralls, then leaned from the window. Introducing myself, I asked if Ray were around.
"I'm Dave," said one of the men as he walked over. "He's around here somewhere." He slapped me on the shoulder. "I'll see if I can find him."
I was anxious to meet Ray. He was by all accounts Delaware's premier authority on scrapple. I'd come because I wanted to better understand the stuff that is such a central part of Delaware culture, that so many people love—and that so many hate.
It's an outcast, scrapple is, or at least it's made from stuff that would otherwise be cast out. Scrapple is an eccentric relative in the family of breakfast foods. I myself often laughed derisively at it in my vegetarian days. There are lots of folks, however, who begin each of their mornnings with a sizzling slab, and the homely gray brick yet maintains its place in the grocer's refrigerator, squeezed into a nook between the pickles and its sexier cousin, bacon.
The stuff is something of a mystery to most. Whence does this less-than-famous, nearly infamous, meat come? How is it produced?
We know little about our food, and we rarely consider its origins. Food has become, as E.B. White noted, an "ending whose fitness is seldom questioned." Simply put, we don't think enough about what we eat. Scrapple, however, by virtue of its inscrutability, forces questions.
I started looking for answers in October at the annual Apple-Scrapple Festival in Bridgeville.
As soon as I learned of the festival, I called my friend Kathryn. She's a health nut, so I figured she'd help sharpen my sense of irony and at the same time discourage me from eating too much scrapple. She's also a paramedic, so she would know what to do were I to overindulge and my arteries to clog instantaneously.
I figured the festival would be a small affair with a lot of apples and a lot of scrapple, maybe a few pony rides. I didn't expect that the whole town would be closed to traffic and turned into an Araby of food vendors, musicians, carnival rides, car exhibitors, political candidates, professional wrestlers, Army recruiters and myriad craft booths. But that's what Kathryn and I found. At first, I couldn't find any scrapple at all, though we did meet a 7-foot-tall pink pig. Kathryn's dog, Smokey, really liked him.
After walking for what seemed miles, I finally found that which I sought under a large white tent: scrapple, its presence betrayed by an aromatic white smoke.
A tall, muscular man stood across the grill from the cook. As the cook on the other side lifted golden rectangles of scrapple from the long flattop grill, this man replaced them with cold, grey slabs from a white cardboard box. The booth was run by the Bridgeville Senior Center.
"Yeah, but I'm only 18," said the tall muscular man, grinning. "Except ya gotta turn the 1 and the 8 around the other way."
I stared at him in disbelief. "You're 81?"
"Man, you look fantastic," I said with real admiration.
He told me his name was Wilbert Suggs, "One Sam, a U, two Gs, and another Sam."
"Do you eat this stuff?" I asked. I was hoping he would defy conventional wisdom, claim scrapple as his secret to virility and longevity.
"Can't," he said bluntly. "I got the gout."
So much for the scrapple-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away angle.
Maybe 200 years ago scrapple made an ideal breakfast for a hardworking Pennsylvania Dutch farmer who lived lean and close to the land, but few would argue, Atkins proponents notwithstanding, that a scrapple-rich diet is wise.
On this particular Saturday, however, scrapple was helping a lot of seniors. Fran Smith, director of the senior center, told me that the scrapple, all 900 pounds of it, had been donated by Rapa, Bridgeville's own scrapple maker. (Rapa is an acronym for Ralph and Paul Adams, founders of the company.) All the proceeds would benefit the senior center.
Get yourself a free sandwich, she said.
"Oh, I'll pay for it," I insisted.
I walked around the tent to wait my turn, but the line seemed to stretch all the way back to Dagsboro.
Not having eaten scrapple in years, I was beginning to believe that it must taste better than I had remembered. Everyone seemed to want it rather badly, and it did look good on the grill, all crispy and autumn colored.
But the wait was just too long, and Smokey was restless. We decided to walk around a bit and take in the atmosphere. Besides, I really wanted to find the scrapple toss and the scrapple carving contest. A quick look at the program revealed there would be a "scrapple sling" at 1:30, so we decided to stroll a bit and find lunch at our leisure.
Kathryn decided on a roast beef sandwich (no bread—carbs bad). Smokey had the same. I was committed to scrapple, however, so I searched until I found another promising booth. This one had what looked like a shorter line, but I still waited 25 minutes. At last a nice lady wearing a hat that said "Jesus Is My Boss" took my order. Moments later I was holding a hot scrapple sandwich. I squeezed some ketchup onto the thick white bread, then walked back to a shaded plot of grass to meet up with Kathryn and Smokey. Without knowing the origin of the scrapple, I carried my sandwich as if it were the grail itself.
I unwrapped the aluminum foil, held the sandwich with both hands, then bit into it.
Now, I really believed that somehow this sandwich, given the circumstances and the effort I had put into finding it, just might change my ambivalence about scrapple.
It didn't. I only got a couple of bites down. Dejected and disillusioned, I gave the rest of the sandwich to Smokey. Then I walked directly over to the tavern on Main Street, where I summarily drank a cold beer from a can.
When I emerged from the darkened tavern into the brilliant afternoon light, I rejoined Kathryn and Smokey, and we all headed over to witness the slinging of the scrapple.
It turned out to be not a throwing contest, but a shuffleboard match between Sussex County politicians. Instead of "shuffling" a standard puck, they were shoving around a big fake block of Rapa scrapple.
At this point, I must confess to some rather sloppy reporting. The event, unbeknownst to me, was not the scrapple toss I had sought. The toss was at that moment underway at a nearby field. I had simply missed the note in the program. Kathryn and I also failed to see, until well after the fact, the rather clearly printed request that no pets be brought to the festival. Fortunately, there were no problems; in fact, everyone we met adored Smokey, so my thanks to the good town of Bridgeville for allowing us to bend the rules. And my compliments: Bridgeville threw a weekend party that sprawled literally over the whole town, yet I didn't see any behavior less than exemplary of good citizenship. The only police I saw were handing out hats to kids. That's extraordinary.
The scrapple sling, however, was not, and we were just about to leave when an acquaintance of Kathryn's walked up. I shall withhold his name.
"Who do you want to talk to?" he asked, suggesting that he could put me in touch with some of the folks in charge of the festival.
"That's kind of you," I said. "But I don't think I need to talk to anybody just yet. I plan on giving the Rapa people a call next week."
"You know they were bought out," he said. "Fired lots of people. Changed the recipe."
I was stunned. Up until then, I'd thought I would be doing a story on a homegrown business, an American original, a mom-and-pop that had stayed true to its roots. I thought I would get to meet Ralph and Paul, or at least their relatives—get the tour, see the family business.
"I didn't realize that," I said.
The disappointment must have registered in my voice. The man shook his head sadly. "Yeah, lot's of folks here in Bridgeville won't even buy it anymore."
That claim would be hard to verify, but it turns out Rapa did sell the business to the Jones Dairy Farm of Wisconsin—in 1981.
To find out about the recipe, I telephoned Rapa and put the question to vice president Donna Seefried.
"Why would we ever change such a wonderful, successful recipe?" said Seefried, who has been with the company for 16 years. She is emphatic that the recipe remains as it always was, that the company didn't want to take the chance of altering such a popular product.
Regarding the feelings of townfolk about the purchase of the business, she is sympathetic to the tendencies of people to not let the traditions of their town go lightly away. Even so, she believes the change of ownership went smoothly and says that Rapa remains close to the community. Given the success and Rapa's commitment to the annual Apple-Scrapple Festival, it would certainly seem unlikely that hard feelings could linger long. Rapa is a major sponsor, a huge annual windfall for Bridgeville that this year brought more than 33,000 folks to town for the weekend.
Seefried told me she was especially fond of the scrapple-carving contest. The entrants work with pork as others might clay, sculpting forms such as apples and pigs. This year someone carved a pig playing a guitar.
She is not as enthusiastic about the scrapple toss. "That's the one thing I don't give them the scrapple for," she said. "It just rubs me the wrong way."
I had to agree. Eating a pig after it has been humanely dispatched is one thing, but throwing food is something that's supposed to get kids in trouble. (At least, I always got in trouble. I know I never got a trophy.) Besides, with Punkin' Chunkin', Delaware has already pushed the envelope in food-throwing. I was pleased, therefore, when Seefried told me the folks in Bridgeville will be competing henceforth only with fake scrapple. The real scrapple will continue to be used for better causes, such as raising money for charities. To that end, Rapa donates a lot of product.
It also makes a lot of product, 85 percent of all scrapple sold in the Baltimore-Washington area.
That's impressive, but I wanted to talk to a small, family run business. I wanted to get to the heart of Delaware scrapple, to find its traditions untouched by corporate America.
So I looked up Skip Burnham of the Milton Sausage and Scrapple Co. and called him up one Sunday afternoon, only to learn that he sold the business just a couple of years ago. Skip's family had been making scrapple since his grandfather bought the business from the Black brothers back in 1940. I asked why, with over 65 years and three generations of family invested in the business, he would want to sell it?
"My son Jeff, who ran the business with me, wanted to go to school. I needed someone from the family to keep it going, so I just sold it. And I guess I felt like I'd done it long enough, myself."
Skip is especially proud of his kids. He wanted to talk about them more than scrapple. They all went to the University of Delaware, collecting three master's degrees between them. Jeff teaches at-risk youth.
"They don't give him much trouble," Skip said. "He's a big guy. I used to arm wrestle him, and he could beat me by the time he was in 10th grade."
Skip took up a new career in real estate, which suits his warm personality. (The first thing he did when I called him was invite me to lunch). "I get to meet so many great people," he said.
I wanted to know more about scrapple from Skip, specifically, what was in it. Skip rattled off a list of pork parts that don't get much attention otherwise: the snout, heart, ears, liver, fat back and jowls. At least I think he said "jowls." I was having trouble hearing him over the phone, and it's possible he said "jewels." I did not ask for, nor did I want clarification. Jowls were fine with me.
The secret to good scrapple, Skip said, lies in the spices. Skip's grandfather developed the secret recipe using exotic spices supplied by the A.C. Legg Co.
"Did you ever change it?" I asked.
"Hell no!" Skip said, suggesting with a laugh that a grandfather's formula is best not tampered with.
People have different preferences for how they eat their scrapple. Some like ketchup. Others prefer maple syrup. I know a guy who used to make scrapple shakes, a sort of smoothie of scrapple, ketchup and a little water. He'd mix it in the blender to make a breakfast on the go.
"Ever hear of a scrapple shake?" I asked Skip.
"No. Never heard of that one."
"What's your favorite way of eating it?"
"Well the best way to eat it is before it's cooled in the loaf pans, when it has just finished cooking. You just spread it right on the bread."
If you don't have a bubbling cauldron of fresh scrapple, Skip suggests a nice thick cut. "I like mine about a half an inch or so."
I also wanted to know if Skip thought it was getting harder for small, family business to make a go of it in the present economy. Skip thinks so, but when I asked if he thought scrapple would go the way of the dodo, he replied with a firm "no." He said lots of scrapple is still made by Delaware companies, including Kirby & Holloway and Delaware Maid.
"Call up Ray Quillen," said Skip. "He makes Delaware Maid scrapple. He's a good friend of mine. Tell him I sent you. He's a really nice man."
So I called up Ray. He invited me down. "Get here early," he said. "We start at 6 in the morning and usually finish by about 1."
His directions were easy: "Just turn at the Felton light and go out Burnite Mill Road. We're the first right just past Peach Basket Road."
So that was how I came to be standing in Ray Quillen's driveway on that cool morning, right in the heart of Delaware—literally only a few miles west of the precise geographical center of the state.</